Tropes and Gender: Notes from the 2018 World Fantasy Convention, Part 3

Life has been a bit turbulent lately, and I’ve neglected many things, this blog among them. More on that at some later time….but for now, World Fantasy Convention notes continue! Today I’m sharing what I learned from panels on tropes and gender.


“Before They Were Tropes” included Ellen Datlow, Laura E. Goodin, Fred Lerner, Alan Smale, and Sheila Williams, and was billed thusly: “The first instance of an idea that has become so ingrained into the public consciousness that it seems dull. Are there any new ideas which will be tomorrow’s tropes?”

Panelists began by defining “trope” within the context of writing for a particular audience. In this context, a trope is shorthand to effectively communicate with the reader as the reader “writes” the text via their reading of it. A trope begins as a “novum,” a new idea. Any trope is fresh when first conceived.

The discussion traced the current prevalence of tropes in literature to the 1920s and the birth of genre fiction as commercially viable. The specialized nature of genre fiction, and its more focused audiences, made the shorthand of tropes especially convenient. Their use began to become common in the 1930s, when mass publication created fandoms. Panelists pointed out that genre comprises a sort of form of reading instructions–there are certain tropes or protocols for understanding various genres. Tropes are shared assumptions, a sort of shorthand that let the reader launch right into the story. Publishers seized on and perpetuated tropes because they work to sell stories to fans of one work who want more of the same thing.

Panelists were quick to point out the potentially restrictive nature of tropes. Tropes of character, plot, setting, and imagery can be impossible to completely avoid. On the flip side, writers can disrupt tropes to shake up a story and jar the reader out of complacency. The disruption of a trope creates tension between the reader’s expectation and what the writer actually gives them. Tropes create expectations, and can lull the reader into a false sense of familiarity.

In short, tropes are still powerful–but their use should be carefully considered, and is dependent upon genre to some degree, and to the effect the writer wishes to create.


“Gender 401” included Nino Cipri, Louise Herring-Jones, Ellen Klages, K. M. Szpara, and Izzy Wasserstein. The program description reads, “A panel that specifically goes past the basic, cis-centering diversity questions and delves into discussions that are important to trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming creators in the field.”

This was a fantastic panel that truly lived up to the promise of being a graduate-level micro-mini seminar on gender. With trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming writers on the panel, it offered a range of perspectives. My notes from this panel consist mainly of hastily scribbled reading recommendations, which I share below:

My favorite takeaway (I can’t remember who said it–apologies!!): we need representation in order to change minds. “You don’t have to think about things you don’t see.”

Next time, I’ll finish up my World Fantasy Convention report with notes on the future of fantasy.

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